Saturday, July 22, 2000

Bush picks Kentuckian as convention speaker

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL — When Elaine Chao came to America as a young girl years ago, she could not speak a word of English. In a few days, Ms. Chao — a native of Taiwan and now wife of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — will deliver a speech to a national prime-time TV audience during one of the most coveted speaking slots in national politics.

        Ms. Chao, 47, the former head of the United Way of America and the Peace Corps, has been selected by Texas Gov. and GOP presi dential candidate George W. Bush to speak July 31, the opening night of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

        “Gov. Bush's message of inclusiveness and outreach to all within our society resonates deeply with every American,” Ms. Chao said in a statement. “America needs George Bush's compassionate conservatism to provide leadership that will stimulate and reinforce both self-reliance and self-esteem.”

        She will share the night with two other stars of the convention —

        retired Gen. Colin Powell, who is likely to receive a Cabinet appointment should Mr. Bush win the November election, and Mr. Bush's wife, Laura.

        Ms. Chao said she expects to convey a message of “inclusiveness and outreach to all” in American society. Being a woman and a minority, she is a symbol, some observers say, of the GOP's strong desire to court these segments of voters.

        “I think my family's story mirrors that of millions of other Americans who came to this country seeking better opportunities for their children,” Ms. Chao said Friday.

        “I hope to convey that America is a wonderful country, that it's a country of generosity and decency and fairness and that it's a privilege to be here.

        “This country offers a great deal of opportunity, if one dares to dream.”

        Considering only eight prime-time speeches have been scheduled so far during the four-day convention, Ms. Chao's selection is an “incredible” honor, Mr. McConnell said.

        “As you can imagine, I'm very proud of her,” Mr. McConnell said this week. “I think the Bush campaign has made a wise decision. She is very accomplished and very successful and has a very important personal story that fits nicely with the theme of the convention.”

        The other speakers scheduled to appear on prime-time network and cable television are Mr. Bush; whomever he selects as vice president; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Elizabeth Dole; and Condoleezza Rice, a Bush adviser who is also likely to be appointed to a Cabinet post in the event Mr. Bush wins.

        “Elaine Chao is a shining star for Kentucky, the Republican Party and Kentucky,” said Damon Thayer of Scott County, the vice chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party.

        “She and her family are a great American success story, and I'm proud that Gov. Bush chose to put the spotlight on her on the convention's opening night,” Mr. Thayer said.

        In her speech, Ms. Chao said that she hopes to emphasize the opportunities afforded to ordinary Americans through the Republican party.

        Ms. Chao said that she has known Mr. Bush “for well over a decade,” and that she and the governor campaigned together in California during his father's 1988 presidential run.

        During a June 16 campaign stop in Lexington, Mr. Bush talked about the struggles that Ms. Chao's family faced when first in America and how they were able to adapt and flourish in America.

        “(Mr. Bush) knows my family's story as far as being newcomers to America,” Ms. Chao said.

        Mr. McConnell said Ms. Chao's parents were fleeing China during the 1949 Communist uprising when they met among a group of refugees who were headed to Taiwan.

        The couple married and settled in Taiwan but came to America in 1961 when Ms. Chao was 8 years old. At the time, she could not speak English.

        She was raised in New York, where her father built a successful shipping business. She earned an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College and an MBA from Harvard. Ms. Chao also studied at M.I.T., Dartmouth College and Columbia University.

        After graduating from Harvard, she went into investment banking, working for Bank of America and Citicorp.

        In 1983 Ms. Chao won a White House fellowship and eventually went to work in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, serving as deputy secretary of transportation under President Bush.

        In 1992 she became president and CEO of the United Way of America and was widely credited with restoring credibility to the social service agency, which had been rocked by scandal under previous leadership.

        She then went on to head the Peace Corps and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where her areas of expertise include civil society, the nonprofit sector and philanthropy.

        Ms. Chao also serves on a number of corporate boards, including posts with Dole Food, Clorox and Northwest Airlines. She has been named one of Washington's 100 most powerful women by Washington Magazine and is accomplished speaker, earning more than $80,000 last year in speaking fees, according to the financial disclosure she and Mr. McConnell are required to file under federal election laws.

        She and Mr. McConnell met in Washington and were married in 1993. The couple does not have any children, but Mr. McConnell has three daughters from an earlier marriage.

        Though they have a condominium in Louisville, The couple spends most of their time in Washington.

        Ms. Chao does, however, help Mr. McConnell and other Republicans on campaigns.

        During Mr. McConnell's 1996 re-election campaign, Ms. Chao campaigned across the state for her husband, making several appearances in Northern Kentucky.

        She also chairs the Kentucky Victory 2000 program, a state Republican effort to get out the GOP vote. Mr. Bush appeared with Ms. Chao at one of the group's fund-raisers last month, pulling in more than $1 million.


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